Communicating Ship Design in Virtual Reality
Designing and building ships is one of the oldest professions known to humankind. Throughout most of its history, the basic approach has remained unchanged: the ship would be designed on a number of 2D plans, after which it was up to the craftsmanship of the builder to make the design a reality. In the last several decades, ship design has made the transition from paper drawings and hand calculations to CAD files and digital analysis tools. However, at first, the computer was simply used as an easier way to draw in 2D, and the end result of this hard work was still nothing more than a large stack of 2D drawings.
Considering how computer technology has progressed in the past decade, 3D computer models became the order of the day, and we could start using 3D information in every step of the design process. In this philosophy, the 3D model of the ship has become the basis of all information, from which the 2D drawings are derived and delivered for approval. This is valid from the very first general arrangement to all construction plans and workshop drawings for the shipyard. Nonetheless, communicating the design is still done mostly in 2D.
With all this 3D information at hand, the next logical step is to change the way we communicate our designs. Instead of 2D drawings, now the 3D model itself can be easily shared across platforms. Key to this development is coupling the engineering model to a gaming platform, Unity. This allows essentially unlimited freedom in how to present and interact with the information from the engineering model. By combining this with virtual reality (VR) hardware, the design can be communicated in a much more immersive and intuitive way. In turn, this allows the designer to better accommodate the customer’s wishes, or to communicate more effectively with other technical experts.
Currently, computer calculation results, production information, or maintenance data can be coupled to components of the 3D model in Unity. Sharing this data in an intuitive way could significantly streamline the class approval process of a design. In addition, this technique could be used during repairs or retrofits, by overlaying the digital model on top of the actual vessel in augmented reality (AR) for the engineer on-board. Ultimately, by incorporating a real-time data stream from sensors on the vessel, a complete virtual representation of a vessel could be made on-shore, which would provide a platform for operators of unmanned ships.
The coupling of 3D engineering and the Unity platform has provided us with a very powerful toolkit for changing how a ship design is communicated. Using these tools creates a much greater understanding of the design in an intuitive way for clients, classification societies, and shipyards, and allows us to design better ships. Furthermore, the future applications of these tools are virtually limitless, and can help pave the way for radical changes in the shipping industry.

Author: Harry Linskens

NOTE: this article is a summary of a paper written for the COMPIT conference. Please contact Marleen Lenting if you would like to recieve the full paper: